What is a Navajo Taco?

Posted on 17 Sep 2012 02:46

The Navajo taco is a taco based on Navajo fry bread, sopaipilla, instead of a tortilla. They are topped with various taco ingredients such a refried beans, lettuce, tomato, scallions, avocado, cheese, sour cream, etc., with many variations being welcome, such as meat or chili toppings, corn, green chiles, cilantro, etc. A guacamole relish, salsa, or taco sauce might finish the dish. The Navajo taco was voted the State Dish of Arizona in a 1995 poll conducted by the Arizona Republic newspaper. They are now more commonly known as Indian Tacos and other Indian tribes have adopted them.

Navajo fry bread is sometimes thought of as a traditional Navajo food, and it is true that many tribes have recipes for fry beads. However, the Navajo bread was a later invention born of necessity when the Navajo were imprisoned near Fort Summer, and had little access to quality food. In the summer of 1863, the Navajo had been invading army forts that had appropriated their land in the areas of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico. The army forced many thousands of the Navajo people to surrender by burning the areas around their lands so that there was not enough food. In 1864, the army began a series of marches to the Bosque Redondo camp near Fort Summer in southwestern New Mexico, during which hundreds of the people died.

While the Navajo people, who call themselves the Dineé, were imprisoned in Bosque Redondo, they were given very few quality rations. Among the rations they did receive were flour, lard, powdered milk, sugar, and baking powder. The people used these ingredients to make fry bread. Although this bread was borne out of a terrible time in the Navajo nation's history, the bread is a symbol of the people's survival and perseverance. It was subsequently adopted by many other tribes, who put their own spin on it, and today is a favorite treat all over the Southwest. The Navajo nation, in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, is the largest Native American tribe in the United States.

Navajo taco

Navajo Taco
image by John Pozniak via wikimedia

Navajo taco

Navajo Taco
image by John Pozniak via wikimedia

The dough is made out of the above mentioned ingredients, wheat flour, dry milk, baking powder, and water, which is shaped into flat discs and deep fried in lard. The bread is bumpy, crunchy, and chewy and leftovers are great for a dessert when topped with powdered sugar and/or cinnamon.

The fry bread wasn't necessarily always eaten as tacos. In the past, it was often eaten along with soups or stews.

As you might have gathered, the various ingredients used in the tacos aren't exactly native to the Navajo. The beans, tomato, and cilantro were brought from Mexico by the Spanish and the use of wheat and lard is a Spanish addition. Chiles are native to the area and the mode of preparation is native Navajo. You can find these tacos all throughout the Southwest in restaurants and roadside stands, as well as served at various events and gatherings, such as rodeos. The bread is topped with the various ingredients and people roll them up to eat. It should be noted that the Navajo Nation has never given its consent to use its name in selling the tacos.

A similar bread to the Navajo fry bread eaten by the Inuit as well as other First Nations people of Canada is bannock.

Navajo family in 1873

Navajo family in 1873

Navajo family in 1873

Navajo family in 1873

Navajo Fry Bread


2 1/2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tbs dry milk powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup warm water
oil for deep frying (shortening or lard can be used as well)


Mix together the flour, baking powder, dry milk powder, and salt in a bowl. Stir in warm water to make a dough. Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface until it is soft and smooth and not sticky. Do not over-knead. Add more flour if the dough is too wet and sticky.

Place the dough back in the bowl and cover to stand for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, heat one to two inches of oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. The oil should be about 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Shape one of the pieces of dough into a flat disc, about 1/4 inch thick, on a floured surface. Place the disc carefully into the hot oil to test the oil and see if it fries the bread quickly enough. The bread should start sizzling and frying immediately. Let the bread fry on one side for two or three minutes, until it is golden brown. Turn the bread over and fry the other side until golden. You may need to poke the bread down a bit to make sure it fries evenly, but do not expect the color to be perfectly uniform as the bread will be puffy and bumpy, as it is supposed to be.

Repeat with the rest of the dough pieces and drain the fried bread discs on paper towels. If you would like, after draining, you can place the fried bread on a paper towel lined plate in a 150 degree oven, to keep them warm while frying the remaining pieces.

Top the bread with taco toppings and serve.

The Navajo Nation

The Navajo Nation is the largest American Indian Nation in North America. In 2002, they have a population of 290,000 people and their territory officially covers 25,000 square miles in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. However, their country, which they call Diné Bikéya, covers much more than this.

1. Albala, Ken. Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia, Volume 1. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011. 365.
2. Smith, Andrew F. The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. 410.
3. Sen, Amit. Academic Dictionary of Cooking. Delhi: Isha, 2005. 201.
4. DeAngelis, Therese. The Navajo: Weavers of the Southwest. Mankato, MN: Blue Earth, 2004. 19

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